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|A CurtainUp Review
The Persians by Elyse Sommer
There's absolutely no need to beware of struggling with difficult, musty with age language or themes. Ellen McLaughlin's new version is crisp and easily comprehensible. Under Ethan McSweeny's insightful and exciting direction, the well-chosen cast, enunciate it clearly and with feeling. Aeschylus's historic account of the Greek defeat of the Persians under the rule of King Xerxes is painfully, searingly relevant now as it was when the playwright, who participated in that victory, presented it to the festival of Dionysus in 472 BC.
While not regarded as one of the top-drawer Greek dramas (which may accounts for its lack of revivals), The Persians is a theatrical ground-breaker. It can be viewed as a forerunner to the docudrama since it grew out of the author's own experience in the Battle of Salamis which put a devastating end to the Persians' aggressive empire building. It was also innovative in its focus. While ostensibly celebrating the Greek victory, the story is told by the vanquished rather than the victors and in so doing Aeschylus went beyond celebrating his countrymen's triumph but created a cautionary tale for all overly ambitious heads of state and otherwise powerful leaders through the ages The appearance of the defeated King Xerxes' dead father Darius also marks this as the first play to feature a ghost.
Director McSweeny taps right into the docudrama flavor. Instead of detailed director's notes, he has the seven-member chorus enter the stage from the aisles wearing ordinary, modern street clothes. Thus attired they set the stage for the drama to come. In a quick shift during which a map of the conflict to be depicted is projected onto a large screen, the speakers don period robes and become the Counsellors in the Persian Court to anxiously a wait news of the young men they sent to war and who now seem to have vanished.
The Michael Schimmel Center where the National Actors Theater' now makes its home has a a huge stage, wider than most Broadway theaters. That means Mc Sweeney had his work cut out for him to block the performance so that it doesn't overpower the actors. He has met this challenge admirably by dividing the stage so that the chorus can smoothly navigate the downstage area and those in the spotlight are seen and heard at close range to the audience. McSeeny has cuts down on the difficult entrances and exits of Queen Attosa (Roberta Maxwell) from the upstage section by having attendants rolling out rugs to avoid our sense of watching an endlessly long walk on the beach. Those entrances and exits still feel somewhat remote and slow but Maxwell's regal performance further helps to allay the inherent problems of the space.
During the Queen's first meeting with the Counsellors she seeks interpretation of dreams full of doom and gloom. These dreams turn into grim reality with the arrival of a Persian soldier (Brennan Brown) who is an isolated survivor of the bloody battle during which the Greeks defeated the heretofore glory bedecked Persians. Brown relates his tale of bloodshed with impassioned anguish, the impact of his words underscored by Michael Roth's powerful music, played by three musicians positioned at each side of the stage. The overall and quite wonderful musicality of this production at several point extends to having the Chorus break into song.
When a member of the Chorus cries "This can't be. /This is impossible", the soldier bitterly replies " If only I were lying./ If only I hadn't lived to bring this black garland of woe to place at your feet./But it's true. I am the last, the only survivor."
Cariou and Stuhlbarg who, like the members of the chorus, are actors with impressive resumes, arrive late and for no more than about five minutes each, but their respective five minutes are worth waiting for. When Maxwell's royal robes and towering crown are replaced by bare feet and head and a black dress, she seems to have literally shrunk before our eyes, the embodiment of what has happened to her country. The wide-ranging experience of the seven actors in the chorus is more than evident in their performances.
Besides the very effective musical elements, high praise is in order for James Noone's set with its black chairs that stand straight as soldiers only to be toppled like the soldiers in the fatal battle. Even more striking, Noone eventually covers the stage with blood red sand. Kevin Adams' lighting adds to the stunning visual impact.
The Persians isn't as personal a drama with a complex and contradictory central character like Euripides' Medea (review), an updated version of which recently enjoyed a successful Broadway run; yet its history lesson about power and its misuse is also the stuff of high drama -- especially as executed here. The running time is just 80 minutes, and unless there's an extension, as there ought to be, the playing schedule is also short -- enough so to warrant my suggestion not to put off getting a ticket.
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At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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